25 Nov

How to Help Readers Scare Themselves – #SpookyAllYear

Spooky All Year banner 2

Spooky All Year is a blog hop I’m running over The Midnight Society! As you can probably guess, it’s where we post spooky stuff! Yeah!

I made all the banners for people to use. It’s good to have pictures in your posts, and people are always struggling with what to put in there, so I thought I’d make it easy. This one always makes me smile. I think that ghost is totally shocked at all the cats, like holy crap, why are you all different sizes like that, cats? That’s…. spooky!

ahs are you afraid

Okay, now time for my actual post, yes? Let’s talk about writing scary shit!

When I’m brainstorming scenes for a story, I’ll often make out a list of things that frighten me. When most people do this they’re going to list off things like snakes, heights, spiders, ghosts! But when I go to look up quotes from authors, I find many variations of:

“The unseen enemy is always the most fearsome.”
― George R.R. Martin

“Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.”
― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H. P. Lovecraft

Writers use this knowledge all the time. Most commonly, we talk about having an unknowable threat. Slasher stories are a great example. We know there is a killer out there, but who is it? The tension has us on the edge of our seats the whole story! You find out a little bit more, you think you know who it is, but until you know you don’t really know, and that is scary. They could pop up any second! You could be talking to them right now!


When we watch these movies, we try to fill in the gaps ourselves, guessing who the killer is the whole time. If you don’t tell your audience something, they will try to fill it in for themselves. If this is an accident on the writer’s part this can go badly, but when used intentionally, this can give the audience the perfect opportunity to fill it in with whatever is scariest for them.

When a writer first sets out to write something frightening, the instinct is often to show the most frightening thing they could think of. The thing right in the center of it all. They start off talking about the big scary spider, and then they describe its hairy legs and the size of it, and every single detail they can pull out of their minds. But for some reason, the description doesn’t feel… scary. It feels like it’s trying, very very hard.

When you rewrite that scene, try writing from further away. Instead of starting with the big scary spider, have Ron and Harry following a trail of little spiders (ah, Harry Potter!) or describe the size of the room this beast is taking up. Don’t look at the spider, look around it.

Let me reference some examples here to show what I mean.

One of my favorite tension setting monsters are the reavers in Firefly. In the beginning of the show, we don’t see the reavers. We don’t have to. What we see is how completely terrified the characters are of this threat. First we see that Mal, the captain who has handled other threats without showing any fear, is scared. He jumps to attention and takes the threat seriously. We learn more when Zoe, second in command and always in control, tells us very little about the actual reavers, but about what she believes the reavers would do them if they found them. Horrible monsters! Doing horrible things! But we don’t know anything about them, and we’re terrified of them.

And that’s because the writers, for a long time, simply let us fill in the picture ourselves. By the time we do finally see them, it almost doesn’t matter what they look like or do, because we have a built up fear about them. The viewer has painted their own picture in their minds about what scares them most, and that has become the reavers for them.

So how did the writers do that, exactly? How can you write something spooky without describing it in detail?

Start from further away.

If you’re writing something bloody and you want it to be really scary, describe the blood splatter on the walls, the reactions of the people seeing it, the smell in the room. If you’re visualizing the scene in front of you, ignore the central figure. Write about what is happening all around it. Readers will fill in the center of that image from there.

If you’re writing about a ghost, show things moving on the table, the lights flickering, cold spots in the room. (We’ve all seen this done, right? It’s still scary when done well.)

If you’re writing about a city full of vampires, don’t show the vampires straight away. Instead, show humans running around the city, thinking they see something in the shadows. Show blood drops on the sidewalk and have the humans run a little faster. Have them hear leaves rustling.

You get the idea.

This isn’t a fast and hard rule. I don’t want you to come back and tell me that you were trying to write about a big scary spider, wrote all around it, but then it turned out no one else knew it was a spider and your story was super confusing. Tell your readers things! Just, select what you want to tell them skillfully. Try to use your readers own imaginations against them! I promise, it’s fun.